At the American Philatelic Expertizing Service, the year 2020 will mark the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the APEX Reference Collection. Since its founding in 1995, donations from APS members and other philatelists have led to the creation of one of the largest philatelic reference collections in the world. Today that collection has grown to approximately 1,400 albums and binders housed in 26 bookshelves — or over 450 linear feet of shelving! The nearby photo illustrates just a few of the volumes in our collection (Figure 1).
Figure 1. During Summer Seminar 2019, we welcomed students into the Expertizing department to explore the Reference Collection.
Nearly every country and stamp-issuing entity is represented in our Reference Collection. No worldwide stamp collection can ever be complete, of course. And ours has gaps and voids that we continually strive to fill. But APEX has never purchased a single stamp for the Reference Collection. We are completely dependent upon the generosity of philatelists to grow this invaluable collection.
While we have never had the entire collection appraised for either catalog or market value, various knowledgeable estimates suggest a market value in the $7–8 million range.
One might reasonably ask the questions, what exactly is a reference collection, and why does the APS need one? A philatelic reference collection is a stamp collection that contains stamps reliably known to be genuine. But also included in a good reference collection are known fakes and forgeries. The purpose of a reference collection is to enable experts (and others) to evaluate stamps against known genuine and forged stamps. This is a central facet of the expertizing process: how does a subject stamp compare to real and fake counterparts?
Experts, of course, have an arsenal of processes, procedures, and tools that they use to authenticate stamps and covers. But every expert requires a deep, focused reference collection in their areas of specialization. Whether you are an Expert Committee member or an APS member, having access to a centrally-located worldwide Reference Collection is an important member benefit.
Donations help build our Reference Collection
Let’s take a look inside our Reference Collection. Perhaps the best way to do that is to review some of the important contributions that have helped build this unique resource.
The biggest single expansion to the Reference Collection began in December 2015 when noted philatelist Don DeWees donated a $300,000 collection of German stamps. He followed this the next year with an equally impressive collection of French material. Both of these generous contributions were acknowledged by Executive Director Scott English in his December 2016 AP column. Don went on to contribute a Great Britain collection that same year. In the next two years, Don’s generosity continued (Figure 2) with the donation of important holdings of Spain, Italy, Sweden, Scandinavia, Denmark & Faroe Islands, Vatican City, San Marine, Belgium, Monaco, Saar, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and the German Occupation!
Figure 2. Don DeWees singlehandedly expanded the Reference Collection’s size beginning in 2015.
Stamps, of course, are at the heart of the Reference Collection. But Don’s collections also include many helpful examples of postal history. The Italian cover in Figure 3, for example, is an 1885 cover from the American Consulate in Rome to New York City. Covers such as this play an important role in our Reference Collection. They provide examples of contemporaneous cancellations and Auxiliary Markings as well as evidence of rates, routes, senders and recipients. All of this is vital information when authenticating both stamps and postal artifacts such as covers.
Figure 3. Stamps are not the only reference materials found in the Reference Collection. Covers like this one depict examples of cancellations and markings in use — a useful resource for the Expert Committee and philatelic researchers alike. From the DeWees donation.
32,000 Penny Reds
Not every contribution to the Reference Collection is a country collection. Sometimes we receive some very specialized material that is difficult to duplicate. One example is a collection of Great Britain Penny Red stamps (Figure 4). Around 12 years ago, we received two massive custom stamp albums, each page consisting of a reconstructed sheet of stamps. When the collection was donated, it was estimated that there were approximately 32,000 stamps in the two binders, ranging from Plate #71 to #224. Not all of the sheets are fully populated and the pages for some sheets are completely empty, so there is still work to be done. But this is a very uncommon collection and a great reference tool.
Figure 4. Sheets of Great Britain Penny Reds: the slightest changes in plate construction are documented in this extensive collection.
Another way to look at the donations we’ve received is to consider some of the true rarities in the Reference Collection. Many of you will recall that I wrote about the APS’ copy of the famous Inverted Jenny (Scott C3a) in the November issue of the AP. But the Jenny is far from the only notable rarity we have.
Figure 5. There are only four known authenticated vertical coil pairs of the U.S. Scott 321, pictured here. The Reference Collection keeps an example “just in case” another, or a single, is unearthed for authentication.
My favorite example is the pair of U.S. Scott 321 shown in Figure 5. Scott states that there are four known authenticated pairs of this vertical coil. Issued in 1908, it is described as carmine, perf 12 horizontally. In case you are curious, Scott places a catalog value of $600,000 on these pairs. You might well ask why we keep such a valuable item in the Reference Collection. After all, how many submissions claiming to be a 321 is APEX likely to receive? How many comparisons are we likely to make? The first answer is that we have it “just in case” another shows up. The more intriguing reason to keep this pair around has to do with a part of the description in the Scott Specialized Catalogue of US Stamps & Covers:
“There are no authenticated unused or off-cover used single stamps recorded. Two on-cover singles are known…”
Should a purported single of 321 — on or off cover — be submitted to APEX for a certificate, we are prepared to expertize and authenticate it. Authenticating a stamp requires many detailed tests and examinations. Expressing an opinion on a stamp without having something to compare it with is never desirable.
Forgeries are important reference materials
While genuine stamps of any catalog value are mandatory components in any reference collection, no such collection is complete without a broad array of forgeries, counterfeits, and other faked stamps. Many forgeries are so well executed that it is imperative to have both genuine and forged examples in order to authenticate a submitted stamp. Many of these forgeries are in great demand despite their inauthenticity. Sometimes these fakes are more valuable than the real stamps.
The American Philatelic Expertizing Service has been the recipient of many donations from the members of our own Expert Committee. Lois Evans-de Violini is one such member. She is a distinguished expert in Japanese philately. A few years after the founding of our Reference Collection, Lois donated a two-volume analysis of the early genuine and forged stamps of Japan. This very thoroughly documented study offers, for example, a rich group of early surcharges, and the forgeries designed for the philatelic marketplace.
Overprints and surcharges in general are an area where forgeries are rampant. The old-time forgers were quite adept at faking overprints on genuine stamps as well as on stamps that themselves were forgeries. Modern forgers, using the latest computer technology, create even more insidious fakes.
Have a look at the genuine 1871 Dragon stamp first issue of Japan (Scott 1) seen in Figure 6a. Shown are two stamps from Plates I and II. The denominations appear as black surcharges. Compare these with a forged version, Figure 6b. The appearance is close, but discernable with the naked eye. But without reference copies of both, the opportunity for erroneous identification increases.
These particular forgeries are of some note, as they were produced by the Spiro brothers, notable German forgers active during the 1860s and 1870s. It is thought that the Spiro brothers were not intending to fool philatelists but were instead intending to provide low-cost “space fillers” to collectors who could not afford the genuine stamps. Today, many Spiro forgeries are themselves certified as “genuine forgeries” and sell at auction for a premium above the genuine stamp.
A note here about condition seems called for. The right-hand stamp in Figure 6a is clearly damaged and somewhat less than desirable for a personal stamp collection. As stamp collectors, we want to obtain the most pristine stamps we can find and afford. But that is not necessarily true for reference collections. The stamp must only be sufficiently intact and untarnished to allow for comparison with stamps submitted for expertizing. Beyond that, condition is not important. Indeed, buying damaged stamps is an economical way to build a reference collection that includes otherwise expensive materials.
Figure 6a (left two). Genuine stamps from Plate I and II of Japan Scott 1; Figure 6b (right). Forged example of Japan Scott 1. From Evans-de Violini donation.
Documenting forgeries with analytical philately techniques
Figure 7. This binder in the Reference Collection is the culmination of many years of study by Lyman Caswell, and contains a definitive study of Sgezed overprints.
Lois Evans-de Violini’s reference of forged Japanese material required many years of study to assemble and document in the 1990s. Another approach to identifying forgeries was used by Lyman R. Caswell in his analysis of the Hungarian Szeged overprints originating after World War I. Caswell used two tools of analytical philately: reflectance spectroscopy and X-ray fluorescence spectra.
The story is a complex one, and I can’t describe it here. Caswell’s article, “Evaluation of Forensic Methods for Overprint Analysis” appeared in the January–February 2012 issue of the Collectors Club Philatelist and can be viewed by APS members from APRL Digital webpage (aps.buzz/library, log in, and click Digital Library).
What is relevant here is that Caswell produced a definitive analysis for differentiating among genuine and forged Szeged overprints. The stamps he used were organized into a binder of approximately 50 pages, as exemplified by Figure 7. When his study was complete and his findings were published, Lyman Caswell donated his volume of study materials to the APEX Reference Collection. Any collector seeking to have Szeged overprints authenticated can turn to APEX to ensure that they receive an authoritative and reliable certificate.
Forgeries vs Counterfeits
Figure 8. The counterfeit pictured here represents an emerging area of philatelic study: computer-generated postage.
There are many definitions used to distinguish between these two terms. The APEX definitions are pretty simple: forgeries target philatelists, counterfeits target postal authorities. In the reference collection, we have examples of both, although forgeries are represented much more frequently.
Recently, we received an example of a contemporary counterfeit. These, however, were not postage stamps issued by the U.S. Post Office. Rather, they were attempts to imitate Computer-Generated postage of the type created by several websites. Famed stamp dealer and Expert Committee member Stanley M. Piller encountered these stamps, an example of which is seen in Figure 8. These fakes were created by scanning legitimately-created CG postage and then simply reprinting them using laser printers. The fakes are very readily detected by postal scanning equipment because the 2-D barcodes are all duplicates. But the APS Reference Collection now has a defaced example for use during stamp authentication.
The vital role of former Directors of Expertizing
As stamp collectors, we all realize how challenging it is to organize our albums and keep up with new acquisitions. Just think about the effort involved in maintaining a collection the size of our Reference Collection! For this task, we are totally dependent on volunteers.
Mercer Bristow, APEX’s longest-serving Director of Expertizing, may have thought he was retiring a few years ago. But he remains a weekly visitor to APEX. Mercer’s philatelic passion is working diligently to update the Reference Collection. Given the frequent arrival of philatelic donations to the Reference Collection, this is a herculean task. But maintaining a stamp collection that is worldwide in scope is a vital job. And no one is more qualified or more enthusiastic than our own Mercer Bristow! We remain deeply grateful for his continuing contributions to APEX and the Reference Collection.
My own predecessor, Tom Horn, also volunteers. Tom has been a stamp collector for many decades, and he has a great interest in postal history. So, Tom is helping to organize and document the covers found in our Reference Collection. Catalog numbers help us keep our stamps organized, but it is not so easy with covers from many countries addressed in many languages. Tom has a daunting task and is off to a great start. The results of his efforts were most recently seen at the recent Civil War Symposium here at the American Philatelic Center, where Tom displayed many Civil War patriotic covers for the many Symposium visitors.
How the Reference Collection can help APS members
So why does APEX need its Reference Collection if the members of our Expert Committee already have their own? There are several reasons. I stated earlier that no stamp collection can ever be truly complete. This holds true for even the collections of our Expert Committee members. As a result, from time to time, APEX is called upon to use its own Reference Collection to supplement those of the experts.
Expert Committee members sometimes bring sections of their own reference collections to the APS so they can compare their holdings with ours. While their specialized collections might be more complete than ours, we just might have that one elusive stamp that they are missing. Of course, this works both ways. Visiting experts regularly help us to better understand our own holdings.
What’s in it for APS members? When you visit us here in Bellefonte, I encourage you to bring in some of your more challenging stamps and sets. We will gladly bring out the relevant albums for you to examine and compare against our holdings. While this is not the same as obtaining a certificate, it can help you to put your own collection into perspective. I suggest calling ahead to let us know you are coming.
How APS members can help the Reference Collection
Each month the member email newsletter contains a PDF of selections from the Reference Collection. On many pages scanned from a selected album, you will note that a few (or many) stamps are missing. If you have duplicates that can help fill those gaps, I encourage you to contribute those surplus stamps to the Reference Collection.
One of the biggest challenges that faces the Reference Collection is identifying what material is located in which album or binder. We need to do a better job of detailing our holdings by location.
This summer during Volunteer Work Week, we will be seeking two volunteers to work with the Reference Collection and help us document and organize our many albums. It will be a fun way to see the Reference Collection up close while providing a valuable service to the APS. Please consider volunteering.
I welcome your questions, comments, and suggestions on any philatelic topic. Please feel free to email me at Gary@stamps.org. I look forward to hearing from you.